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Mayor believes city will rebound after record month of violence

As Baltimore reels from its most violent month in 40 years, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake remains upbeat about the city's efforts to fight crime, pointing to the success of an anti-violence program and the retraining of police officers by the U.S. Justice Department.

As Baltimore reels from its most violent month in 40 years, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake remains upbeat about the city's efforts to fight crime, pointing to the success of an anti-violence program and the retraining of police officers by the U.S. Justice Department.

Safe Streets, a program that attempts to suppress violence through mediation, mentoring and street corner rallies, is celebrating more than a year without a homicide in the southern Baltimore neighborhood of Cherry Hill. In other parts of the city, officers are trying to re-establish connections and trust with residents after the April arrest and death of Freddie Gray touched off protests and violence in the city.

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"We're definitely going to keep pushing," Rawlings-Blake said in an interview Monday. "We can't ignore the tragic number of homicides and violence that we had in May. But I can't focus on looking backwards. I have to stay focused on pushing forward and looking for more progress."

The U.S. Department of Justice, which launched a civil rights investigation of Baltimore police after Gray's death, has been retraining officers in community relations, including how to better engage residents on the beat, Rawlings-Blake said.

Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts have drawn criticism from City Council members and groups such as Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development for not doing enough to counter last month's surge in violence.

City homicides have increased significantly, with 116 people killed so far this year, compared with 81 at this time last year. Nonfatal shootings are up 83 percent this year, according to police statistics. The 43 homicides in May were the most in a month in Baltimore since December 1971, when the city had nearly 300,000 more residents.

But the mayor points to the four neighborhoods where Safe Streets operates — which include historically violent sections of West, East, South and Northwest Baltimore — as a positive sign. Two people have been fatally shot while 12 others have been wounded in those areas between the beginning of this year and May 23.

In a city that continues to simmer over issues related to alleged police misconduct and brutality, Safe Streets remains largely unaffected because it has no ties to police. Rawlings-Blake said the way the program connects to the community should be replicated.

"The recent violence that we've seen is not a deterrent to me," she said. "I am convinced we're going to get on the other side of this surge in violence and get back on track."

Other city officials say an expansion of Safe Streets in West Baltimore could help reduce crime and improve community relations in the short and long term.

But they also said more needs to be done. On Monday, several City Council members called for changes to city policing tactics. From the floor of the council chamber, Nick Mosby and James B. Kraft said the Rawlings-Blake administration is taking too long to implement a police body camera program, increasing the likelihood another death could occur.

Mosby introduced a resolution for cameras to be placed "immediately" on officers and in police vans. He objected to the mayor's proposal to study the issue through a pilot program.

"A pilot is too slow," Mosby said. "We cannot afford for another event to break out in our city."

Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young called for the police to restart the "Officer Friendly" program, which worked for decades to introduce students and young adults to police officers through positive experiences. He said the program was disbanded during the 2000s when police turned to "zero tolerance" methods.

And Councilman William "Pete" Welch called for schools to begin teaching nonviolent conflict resolution. Welch said he also wants trauma counseling for children affected by violence.

While council members looked for new solutions to reduce crime and improve police relations, Rawlings-Blake reaffirmed many of the city's current strategies, saying May's crime spike should not overshadow progress the city has made in reducing the violent crime rate before Gray's April arrest and death launched the city into turmoil.

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Much of the recent wave of violence has occurred in West Baltimore, where 23 people have been killed this year. It's also where Gray was arrested, and where emotions remain raw between officers and residents. Police say they are struggling to respond to even routine calls in the area because officers are often surrounded by angry people and cellphone cameras as soon as they step out of their cars.

Operation Ceasefire, a program Rawlings-Blake restarted last year, is trying to re-establish itself under new leadership. Its initial director resigned in protest in March after he said the city failed to provide job training and relocation expenses for drug dealers looking to quit the trade. The mayor had promoted Ceasefire for its efforts last year in helping to cut West Baltimore's homicide count by nearly half. But the number of homicides in the Western District already has eclipsed last year's tally.

Safe Streets, meanwhile, has operated with mixed reviews since it began eight years ago. The program uses ex-felons to mediate neighborhood conflicts that might otherwise end in gunfire. The belief is that Safe Streets outreach workers carry street credibility, having lived in the same or similar neighborhoods, and are an outlet for people to turn to for help if they don't trust or want to cooperate with police. Safe Streets does not work with police, an arrangement that helps drug dealers and others cooperate with the program's "violence interrupters" or mediators.

The city funds three of the program's four Safe Streets centers, paying $770,000 a year. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence pays for the fourth. Safe Streets reaches about 15,000 city residents, or 2.4 percent of the city's population, and its programs cover a total of 1.4 square miles.

Homicides and shootings are rare in Safe Streets' four neighborhoods of Cherry Hill, McElderry Park, Mondawmin and Park Heights compared to many other neighborhoods, according to Baltimore Health Department statistics. A 2012 assessment of the program by the Bloomberg School found that Safe Streets has led to reduced gun violence at nearly all its locations.

But drug-related arrests have marred its successes. In 2013, the Baltimore Health Department, which runs Safe Streets, suspended its Mondawmin branch and retrained employees after two outreach workers were arrested in less than two weeks. Rawlings-Blake also froze funding briefly for two Safe Streets sites in 2010 and ordered an investigation after federal authorities said the East Baltimore branch had ties to the Black Guerrilla Family gang.

Past ties to gang members and drug dealers is why Safe Streets outreach workers say they are effective.

"They know how to communicate with people who have been in the life of gangs and drugs and violence … because they were once there," Rawlings-Blake said. "Now that they have chosen a better and more productive path, they can be a beacon of light for people to see as they move forward."

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That's how the Mondawmin branch of Safe Streets has been able to connect with residents on its blocks, where just one person has been killed and shot this year, according to Gregory Marshburn, who supervises the branch's outreach workers.

"We had no shootings and no homicides last month because our outreach workers are very credible," he said. "They're born in the community, raised there and they're very visible."

Marshburn said the April riots continue to cause tensions on his blocks because people are fighting over merchandise looted from Mondawmin Mall and other stores. He said his workers have had to mediate disputes over people stealing looted clothing, front yard sellers charging customers more than customers are willing to pay, and people robbing the sellers of the looted goods. His mediators try to put things in perspective for people who say they were ripped off in black market sales.

"It was free and you didn't pay anything, so you're not losing anything," Marshburn said his workers tell people. "So don't lose your life for something you didn't even pay for because it's not worth it."

Though some are calling for an expansion of Safe Streets, Rawlings-Blake said the program isn't easy to set up. Ex-felons must be vetted and staff has to be hired, she said.

"Expansion isn't as easy as saying 'lets just increase the boundaries,'" said Dr. Leana Wen, the city's health commissioner.

But Wen said the idea is to slowly expand, and she said the West Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, where Gray was arrested, would be a target site for a future Safe Streets branch.

Baltimore City Councilman Brandon M. Scott, vice chair of the council's public safety committee, said another West Baltimore Safe Streets "could and should be considered."

"There is an extreme amount of power," he said, "in having someone who stood on the corner you're standing on, who held a gun where you are holding yours and [telling you] that there is another way besides killing each other."

Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater and Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

Twitter.com/justingeorge

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